Chapter One

Aline of Hovingham sat before the mirror inspecting her reflection as a maid busied round her. She had a long ride planned for the day and didn't want the inconvenience of her hair coming loose so had asked for it to be braided high and looped in a roll which drew attention to her shapely neck. Now she was starting to feel impatient with the time it was taking and was keen to leave. She had been anticipating the event all week and knew such a chance might not come again before the weather turned colder. For once she had no duties to carry out, no combat training to attend, no lessons on how to be the perfect ambassador and was in high spirits

Her grandfather, the High Lord was aging more rapidly every day it seemed, and when he died it would fall on her shoulders to take on the role of High Lord of the province of Hovingham. High Lady she supposed the title would be, and the thought made her long for the carefree days of her childhood. She had been only fourteen when her father and brother had succumbed to the plague leaving no male to succeed to the title. Against all convention her grandfather had named her as heir with all the obligations the role demanded. For Aline there was one extra burden: taking the throne would inevitably mean marriage to one of the lords from the other provinces, something she did not relish having met a couple of them at the yearly convocations of High Lords.

The Earl of Abingden was old enough to have been her father, though this didn't stop him trying to caress her thigh after a drink or four too many. The Count of Buckman had been handsome enough and young enough certainly but his casual disdain for the opinions of a mere woman had irritated her beyond belief and she swore she would move the Earth itself rather than marry him!

A lady of her status was supposed to wait for marriage so her husband could be assured any children were his (though how could that ever be guaranteed she wondered idly) and she didn't relish the thought of a loveless, political match. At twenty-three when most of her women friends of that age were married and breeding continuously she knew she was lucky to still have such independence, though it could not last forever and a deep part of her longed for a husband. She had caught the whispered words 'old maid' more than once and sometimes, watching other couples in the court laughing and dancing she ached almost physically for someone to seize her up in an embrace.

She dismissed these gloomy thoughts from her mind. Today she would have the pleasure of an excursion with Dickon, the groom who had arrived recently. He was a good horseman and younger by a number of years than the other grooms. That combined with dark brown eyes, thick blonde hair and the complexion of one who spent all day outside made him an appealing prospect for company.

Aline took a final look at herself; a deep green split skirt to allow for easy movement, a laced bodice in the same colour and a pale green shift set off her golden red hair and blue eyes perfectly. Her favourite pendant, a small twist of gold in the shape of a double-knotted spiral completed the effect. She dismissed the maid with a smile and picked up her riding cloak. Leaving her quarters she strolled through the castle and down to the stable courtyard where Dickon was waiting, their horses ready saddled. He helped her onto her grey mare, smiling up at her with an appraising look in his warm brown eyes. He mounted his own horse and side-by-side they trotted out through the city to the main gate, talking idly of their plans for the day.

Aline and Dickon were both accomplished riders, well matched and fearless and after a strenuous morning they stopped for lunch where the moorland surrounding the city met with the woods. Aline was surprised at how far they had ridden; she hadn't been keeping track of the direction, leaving it up to Dickon to choose the way. Now as she dismounted she felt a vague stirring of unease at being so far from the castle with only one groom for security and wondered if she would be able to escape the inevitable lecture if her grandfather found out. Whilst she tethered her horse by a stream Dickon unloaded a pannier, laid out some food and now handed her a goblet of cool wine. She drained it thirstily and he refilled it smiling. The day was unexpectedly warm given that the year was well into autumn and lazily they sat against the trunk of a tree sipping the wine and picking at bread and cheese. Dickon was easy company, though the talk never moved much beyond horses and the amusing snippets of gossip he told her.

Dickon refilled the goblets and Aline closed her eyes and listened to the sound of the birds, enjoying the chance to leave behind the duties of the prospective High Lady. Circling above was a hawk and she sighed as she remembered that her falconry master had a new clutch of eggs he wanted to show her and made a move to finish her wine before they had to return to the castle. She reached for the goblet but to her embarrassment found her arm sluggish and her hand refusing to grasp. Surprised at having drunk more than she had realised she pulled herself up onto her elbows, but her body seemed heavier than usual and her head was starting to swim.

She realised with puzzlement that Dickon was sitting starting at her, his handsome face emotionless.

"It didn't taste different to usual did it My Lady!" He remarked.

"What do you mean Dickon?" she asked.

"The Wine. It tasted just the same as normal but you've been drugged My Lady. By me, I'm afraid. I've given you Rock Posy juice well known for paralysing the victim quickly and rendering them unconscious not long after that," he said.

"What?" Aline tried to process the information but found it hard to concentrate and her voice sounded slurred. "What have you done?"

"I work for the Duke of Lyonne and he has paid me to hand you over to him as a hostage. Very soon some of his guards will be here to take you to the Citadel." Dickon explained matter-of-factly. "I will of course manfully try to defend you from the surprise attack but sadly I will be no match and will be found wandering near to the castle dazed and with a ransom note some time this evening".

He lay down beside her and spoke softly in her ear, "I'm sorry we have to part like this, I have become quite fond of you but as attractive as you are, the price I was paid was even more so."

He started to run his fingers through her hair, pulling the pins out and Aline realised with horror that she could barely lift her arms to push him away.

"Still", he continued, moving closer so that his wine-scented breath on her face sent waves of panic through her, "I imagine we have some time before they arrive so we may as well say our goodbyes in the manner I've wanted to since I first saw you."

With one hand he began to pull at the laces of her bodice, a feeling of sheer terror overcame her but before she could cry out his mouth was on hers, kissing her brutally. Dickon pressed himself closer and doing the only thing she could think of Aline bit into his lip hard and he pulled away with a cry, a trickle of blood leaking from his mouth. He grabbed a handful of her hair and jerked her head back sharply.

Aline tried to scream but found that her voice was no more than a mewl and she stared at him pleadingly.

"Lady Aline," he chided her, "You know you find me desirable, I've seen it in your eyes often enough so you don't need to look at me like that. We have to take our pleasure while we can."

By now her body felt leaden and the blood was pounding in her ears. Dickon's mouth started to work roughly down to her breasts while one hand fumbled beneath her skirts, stroking her thigh. She hoped that the promised unconsciousness would come quickly and stop her having to experience what was sure to follow.

She made one last futile effort to twist away from him but the effort sent her head reeling. Then from what seemed far away she heard the sound of raised voices and a figure loomed over her, a dagger held at Dickon's neck.

"Stop or I'll slit your worthless throat," a harsh voice said and the speaker pulled the groom up to his feet.

She had only a brief glimpse of her rescuer, a dark haired man clad head to foot in black leather, who gripped Dickon by the throat, before blackness closed over her.